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Is commuter rail in Chaska's future
May 31, 2007
Is commuter rail in Chaska's future
by Mark Olson, May 31, 2007 Chaska Herald©

Almost 40 years ago, the New Town of Jonathan was unveiled to the public.
A central concept for Chaska’s planned community was a commuter rail line that would carry workers from the suburbs into Minneapolis. Jonathan never was fully realized, and plans for the commuter rail dissipated.

However, officials from Twin Cities and Western Railroad (TC&W) recently updated the Carver County board and outlined the possibility of using the tracks for commuter rail. TC&W, headquartered in Glencoe, is a private railroad company that operates 229 miles of track, from Appleton, near the South Dakota border, to Minneapolis.

“To me, it’s interesting that nobody’s really pushed (commuter rail), in terms of public officials,” said Carver County Administrator David Hemze. “I see this as a ripening opportunity.” Hemze contends that, with a willing railroad company and available tracks, there are fewer obstacles than the proposal for Northstar Commuter Rail, which would run from Minneapolis to St. Cloud.

On the radar

With the recent collapse of a Union Pacific trestle bridge, TC&W is currently the only active railroad in the county. At last Tuesday’s County Board meeting, Robert Henry, with TC&W marketing and sales, touted the benefits of his company’s rail line.

Henry was surprised to learn that, on the county’s comprehensive plan, the railroad line, which bisects the county from west to east, was denoted as a bike trail. “We weren’t even on the radar screen. We were a bike trail,” he said.

Hemze speculates that the bike trail designation was a mistake.
“ Now we will be identifying that as a transit option,” Hemze said.

At its last meeting, the County Board approved a measure that supports analyzing various transit corridors – including the TC&W Railroad as commuter rail service. The rail line isn’t interested in operating a commuter rail, Henry said.
“ We’re willing to give or rent track space – and the goal is, we’d go under the same umbrella Northstar is under,” he said.

There are several benefits to using the line for commuter rail, Henry said. Most of the network has the room and infrastructure for two parallel tracks, which originally ran the route, even though only one set of tracks still exists. “The grading is already done and bridges are all set up for two mains – you don’t have to put new bridges in,” Henry said.

Back burner

For TC&W, the commuter rail concept has been “on the back burner,” Henry said. “Since I came in, I’ve been pushing it a little harder. I live in Carver County and would love to see it fly. I have more of a vested interest I guess,” said Henry, who moved to Minnesota last November and lives in Victoria. “Is it going to exist in five years? No. Ten years, possibly,” Henry said. “But we have to start planning now.”

If communities are interested in commuter rail, planning for items such as depots would need to occur now, Henry said. Hemze agrees that long-term planning is necessary. “We need to start with the comprehensive plan,” he said. “If we aren’t identifying it in the comp plan, it ain’t going to happen,” he said.

Besides commuter rail, Henry wants to make sure that cities are including the railroad in their planning. He’s been giving a presentation about TC&W to various government bodies in Carver County.

Future companies along the TC&W railroad could rely on rail lines to deliver their goods. However, the land would need to be zoned for industrial use. “If we don’t plan for this, companies requiring rails will go somewhere else,” Henry said.

Henry has yet to speak with Metropolitan Council officials. The council oversees the Metro Transit system, which operates Hiawatha Light Rail Transit, and will operate the Northstar line.

Other transit options

There are other possibilities for transit in Carver County.

The new Highway 212 project includes right of way for light rail transit, according to Charleen Zimmer, public information coordinator for Highway 212. However, “no special accommodations have been made for LRT in the 212 project,” she stated in an e-mail.

A few former railroad beds run through Carver County, and are now publicly owned and slated for bike and pedestrian paths. The Hennepin County Regional Railroad Authority owns some of this former railroad right of way and reserves the right to use it for transit.

One of the Hennepin County trails follows the Minnesota River bluffs, ending at Highway 212 in Chaska. An existing railroad line along the same path begins at Chaska’s sugar plant and crosses the Minnesota River at Carver. However the recent railroad trestle collapse has thrown the future of the line up in the air.

”Should LRT continue southwest on the abandoned railroad owned by Hennepin County, a bridge would be needed in the vicinity of the new 212 project. The current design of the project does not preclude the addition of this bridge if it were needed in the future,” Zimmer stated.

However, Chaska City Administrator David Pokorney is doubtful about an LRT alignment along this route, which travels through downtown Chaska. With the possible abandonment of the track, the city is already considering downtown redevelopment options.

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